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Bread and Circuses: The CNN/Tea Party Debate

September 14, 2011

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: Bread and Circuses

Juvenal, Satire 10. 77-81

Where to even begin? I had been planning on doing a post analyzing the debate similar to my last one, but part of the way through the CNN/Tea Party Express spectacle last night, it became clear that real, substantive debate over the issues did not have a place in the night’s festivities. Any chance at thoughtful discourse was quickly crowded out and overshadowed by the candidates going after each others records, or poring through the books their opponents had written to pick out the excerpt most likely to deter potential voters. Candidates for elected office are prone to these shortcomings, they are focused on winning the election after all. If they had been the only culprits of the evening then the debate would have been only an ordinary disappointment, but there is much more blame to go around.

CNN must take some of the blame for the structure and flair of the debate, it became clear from the candidate introductions that watchability was the priority of the evening, even at the expense of the quality of debate. As Jeff Greenfield explains in his piece for Politico, CNN’s efforts, which seemed desperate at times, to make the debate more exciting in an effort to draw strong ratings:

Lord knows, they tried: sweeping, swooshing graphics; audience cheers right out of ESPN’s NFL draft coverage; bringing the candidates out one at a time, letting them introduce themselves the way NBC has the offenses and defenses do with quick taped intros. It was nearly 15 minutes before the first question was asked.

This is not to say that the large field and the medium of tv create some restrictions that CNN cannot really get around, the Lincoln-Douglas debates as an ideal would be impractical in 2011. It would be impractical, with a field of eight candidates, to give each candidate very long uninterrupted response times, as they would only be able to address a few issues in the alloted time for the debate, albeit more comprehensively.

The medium of television presents some other restrictions that cannot be blamed on CNN, naturally the tone and appearance of the candidates will have some effect, there is no real way to work around this. So perhaps the appearance or ‘Presidential demeanor’ of a candidate could sway some voters. Bringing the focus back to what CNN can control, it remains unclear why these debates have live audiences. It seems to suggest that those of us watching at home would be unable to come to our own conclusions about the candidates without a helping hand from the audience reactions. The debate audiences lower the quality of debate significantly, candidates shy away from direct answers that they fear could draw a negative reaction from the live audience, and appeals to demagoguery, rhetoric with little substance designed to energize the crowd, are more prevalent.

While it is important for the candidates to draw distinctions between themselves and their opponents (how else would you choose one candidate over the other) at times in this debate it got to the level where Romney and Perry were going back and forth over the exact quotes from their respective books. This line of back-and-forth does little to drive any form of debate that addresses the issues or proposes solutions, and drags both of the candidates down in a race to see who can make the other one look scarier to the prospective voters. This and other lines of attack among the candidates have the troubling potential to make the focus be on the past, and the records and mistakes of the candidates, rather than their visions for the future and how they would attempt to fix some of the many problems facing America today. Not one candidate proposed a solution to the problem of what to do with illegal immigrants already in this country, opting for the more crowd-pleasing lines of having to secure the border, or the need for more boots on the ground. I would have liked to see more of a focus on policies and solutions from the candidates, but this was not entirely unexpected, and they were not the most disappointing aspect of the night.

The moderators, not to worry, deserve some of the blame as well. Even with the restrictions listed above, it remains unclear why they choose not to ask one question and let each of the candidates answer in a concise, timed response. Well, it is unclear if real debate, and giving the voters the best discourse to be able to differentiate among the candidates based on the issues was the real priority. Unfortunately, this is not the real objective, and a debate structure where you have each candidate answer the same question and proposing solutions, takes too much power away from the moderators to stir up the ratings-friendly controversy, and to create the Youtube moments that create a media buzz surrounding the debates. This is one of the issues that could be most worrying to prospective Republican primary voters, if each of the entities that hosts one of these debates has the power, through selectively asking different questions and allowing responses from different candidates, they can shape the course of the primary to a troubling degree, and have taken from the voters their responsibility and power to make those decisions for themselves.

Onto the debate audience. As I went into above, it remains unclear why there needs to be a live audience at these debates at all. One of the running storylines from the last two debates has been the frightening crowd reactions to some of the events within the debates that doubtless has independents and moderates, as well as some Republicans either running scared or hanging their heads because they know the general election just got that much harder.

In the NBC/Politico debate, many people in America were baffled that the audience would save one of its loudest round of applause for when the moderator brought up Perry’s unsurpassed record for state excecutions.

And in the more recent debate, a question (perhaps an unfair one) asked of Ron Paul as to who would pay for the care of an uninsured man’s medical treatment were he to meet with a catastrophic accident that left him in a coma drew shouts of ‘Let him die’ from the crowd.

It is important to remember that in each instance, the candidates were not directly involved, it was the debate audience. Instances like this will make it immensely harder for a Republican party to appeal to independent and moderate voters it will need to have a chance in the general election. The crowd in both of these instances conveys no sense of compassion, it is one thing to disagree over the policies, but it is far another to actively cheer the death of any fellow American. Besides the more obvious distasteful aspect of these crowd outbursts, they also divert much of the attention away from the candidates and the substance of what they are saying. There is no real reason to have a live debate audience, and the folks from these two debates have given good reason for there not to be one.

So everyone physically at the debate played some part in this spectacle, but they were not the only ones. The media gives CNN or whoever hosts these debates incentives to encourage divisivenss among the candidates on stage and reactions from the crowd because that is what will get covered. And the people are complicit in this arrangement for being satisfied with the way things are, for being drawn in by the spectacle of these debates, for choosing form and entertainment over substance.

There is more than enough blame to go around, everyone is culpable for the deterioration of American political debates. The media for seeking to drive ratings by fomenting discord on stage. the candidates for being more than happy to avoid straightforward answers to policy questions and falling back to rhetoric and sniping at each other’s records, and we the audience for becoming complicit in this arrangement. There can no further debate analysis for this disappointing affair other than to say we all lost.

With a country that is mired in an economic downturn, and the contagion of sovereign debt crises spreading throughout the eurozone, there is little doubt that some substantive discourse and proposed solutions to some of the many problems facing this country would have done some good. The Roman people lost sight of many things, they became concerned only with bread and circuses. As long as they were appeased and entertained, they cared for little else. Now the Roman Empire has long since crumbled, and the site of so many circuses of the time lays dormant.

At least with the current scarcity of jobs, growth and hope, for now at least there will be no shortage of circuses.

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